You are proud to be a permanent resident of the United States and live here legally, but you may not feel like an official American until you have received your citizenship. Applying and receiving citizenship status is a big deal, so it is probably not surprising that it can take a long time and involves specific, complicated requirements and rules.
That’s why we created this post. We hope this list of all the basics of becoming an American citizen through naturalization helps to simplify and demystify the process so that you know what to expect if you decide to become a citizen.
What Is Naturalization?
Simply put, naturalization is the process by which a permanent resident of the United States becomes a citizen.
Why might you want to do this?
- The right to vote
- Priority for receiving federal assistance and benefits
- The right to petition for parents, married children, and brothers and sisters to join you as a permanent resident
- The permanent right to live in the United States (you will not be able to be deported once you become a United States citizen)
How Do I Qualify for Naturalization?
Qualifying for naturalization depends on your time as a permanent resident (green card holder) and your continuous residence in the United States.
Permanent residents who are over the age of 18 and have no special circumstances can apply for naturalization after five years of being a permanent resident. You will, however, be disqualified if you left the United States for six months or longer.
90% of applicants fall in the above category. But, as we alluded to above, there are special circumstances that can impact some. Here’s the good news: those circumstances actually help by reducing the time you are required to be a permanent resident, as well as the amount of time you must be a continuous resident. These circumstances include:
- Adults married to U.S. citizens
- Members of the U.S. Armed Forces
- Spouses of citizens who died during active duty services in the U.S. Armed Forces
- An employee of a U.S. nonprofit organization that promotes the interests of the United States through communications media
A full list of qualifications and time restrictions can be found on the United States Citizen and Immigration Services (USCIS) website.
How Do I Apply for Naturalization?
Once you qualify for naturalization and feel as if you are ready to take the naturalization tests, you can fill out a USCIS application for naturalization. You do not have to be in the United States at the time of your application.
What Do the Tests Involve?
After you apply for naturalization, you will be scheduled to take naturalization tests. These tests measure your skills in both English and civics. The English test will include speaking, reading, and writing. The civics test consists of 10 questions (from a list of 100 official questions) about the United States, its government, and its history. You will have to answer six correctly to pass the civics test.
You are given two chances to pass these tests. Your first chance will be at your initial interview. You will be given the tests and possibly asked questions about your application. If you fail either of the tests during your initial interview, you will have the chance to take them again 60-90 days later.
You can study for the naturalization tests by using the study materials offered by the USCIS.
If you are of a certain age and have lived in the country for a certain period of time, or have physical or medical disabilities, you may be exempt from these tests.
How Long Does it Take to Become a Citizen?
An application and two tests. Sounds simple and quick, right?
Unfortunately, processing this form can take between six months to a year because so many people apply for citizenship every day. Then, after your application form is finally processed, you still have to take the tests at your initial citizenship interview. Once you have taken and passed the tests, you may have to wait up to 180 days more before you can take the oath of citizenship and finalize the naturalization process.
If you want to become a citizen of the United States, we offer the following pieces of advice:
- Apply as soon as possible: Each district has a different waiting period, so you might not know how long it will take to process your application until it is processed. It is better to be safe than sorry, and apply as soon as you can.
- Fill Out Your Application Carefully: Any mistakes or inconsistencies on your application could severely delay the time it takes to process your application. Make sure that every detail on your application is correct before you send it.
- Stay in the United States: Remember the rules about continuous residence. If you leave the country for an extended period of time while you are waiting for your application to be processed, your application will be denied.
About the Author:
Katie DeGrio Channing is a community advocate, passionate lawyer, and an experienced small business owner. During her 14 years of working in immigration law, she has been able to help individuals and families from all backgrounds obtain citizenship and find their place in Minnesota and the United States. Her work in the community has helped bridge cultural barriers and educated her peers about immigration rights and law.